Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Talking to future kids about my surgery

I've been thinking recently about how to address the topic of my surgery with our future children. I haven't come to any conclusions. In fact, I'm a little stuck.

I have a lot of opinions about the so-called "obesity epidemic" and accompanying panic, the conflation of "fat" and "unhealthy," size prejudice, body acceptance, and how these things all fit together. I've been thinking for awhile about how to address these issues with our kids, or not address them.

I've written about this before, but my basic thought is that I want to encourage--and model--healthy lifestyle choices for my kids, without linking those choices to a concept of weight. If my kids are eating healthy portions of nutritious foods and getting lots of physical activity, that's great. If they also tend toward overweight--which, as much as I hope that they will inherit their body-size genes from Torsten, is relatively likely, given my own genetics--that's not something I want to focus on.

Now, Tess has a Policy about not discussing weight with her kids at all, and I totally understand and appreciate that policy, and intend to adhere to it in a certain way. I do not want to expose my kids to people lamenting their own bodies, or talking about how they'd like to lose weight, or making comments that seem offhand to them, but could really stick with a child who overhears them (such as my mother-in-law charmingly telling Torsten on our last trip--with no factual basis whatsoever--what lazy walruses he and I both are--but we won't discuss my feelings about THAT particular comment).

But given that our kids will likely tend to be on the larger side, in terms of height and also weight, it's not something that we can totally ignore, you know? Because if they are anything like me then they'll be hearing comments about it from their classmates starting around age six. So I think we do need to be prepared to discuss body size and body image, because I imagine that it will come up. And I want to do so in an affirming, positive, respectful way that reminds our kids that everyone's bodies are different and beautiful and also amazing in what they are capable of doing for us.

So what I'm wondering is, how does my surgery fit into all of this? It seems to me that it would be disingenuous not to discuss it with them at all. And I'd kind of like it to be a fact that they've always known, even when they're too young to really understand it, so that it doesn't become a shocking revelation for them later on, the kind of thing that leads them to wonder why I didn't tell them earlier. I feel like keeping it for some big reveal later in their lives makes it seem like something shameful or embarrassing, and it isn't those things and I don't want to give the impression that it is.

Plus, I think my weight loss will be clear to them--at least if they see any old photos, and I assume that they will, unless we're going to hide all wedding photos and all other photos taken before I hit my goal weight, which is not something I plan to do. So the weight loss will be visible to them and I assume they'll have questions about it.

I don't feel any shame about my surgery, and I don't feel that it is hypocritical in any way. I still believe that all bodies are beautiful and useful, and I still wish that our society wasn't so focused on weight, and I still want to disentangle the notions of health and weight. But I feel like these distinctions, and my reasons for surgery, are nuanced in a way that might be difficult to explain to a six-year-old.

I don't know how I can say to a child who might be upset about having been called fat by a classmate, "You are healthy and you are beautiful and your body is wonderful and should be respected," and then also say, "But I had surgery so that I wouldn't be fat anymore." Because the link there is, "You are healthy and my weight was not healthy for me anymore. Being overweight was hurting me in a way that your body size is not hurting you. Your body is different than mine and this is not something you need to worry about, at least not right now, not as long as your lifestyle is healthy."

I feel like that's a bit much for a child to comprehend, and that the takeaway there is that Mom says one thing and does another. That Mom is just SAYING that it doesn't matter in my case but obviously it DOES matter because look at her and what she did to lose weight. That I AM fat and therefore unworthy and the only reason Mom says otherwise is because she's my mother and she has to say that.

All things that I do not want my kid to think. You know? So, like I said, I'm stuck.

Any thoughts on this? Were there any hot-button issues like this when you were a kid, and how did your parents deal with them? If you have kids, how have you broached difficult issues with them?


  1. I hope to hell I'm better at talking to my kids about Big Stuff than my parents were. My folks are great, but they set the bar pretty low in that department.

    I want to be able to talk about body image with my daughter when this stuff starts to matter, even if she (hopefully) takes after her teeny tiny Chinese grandmother. And part of my motivation to exercise is wanting my kids to see me doing it so they think "I can do that too!" and not "OMG I could never do that, running is for when you are being CHASED."

  2. could you maybe link it to physically having kids? you've mentioned before that one of the big reasons you want to lose more weight is to have an easier/healthier pregnancy, and so telling a child you lost weight so that they'd have a better chance of coming into your life seems like a nice (and true/valid) way to rationalize it, without tying it into their body or shape.

  3. You've put such a wonderful emphasis on your health through this whole process. I think you can probably avoid talking about size or body image and just connect it to health.

  4. I think that when you have children, you'll grow into the conversation like everything else. I know it seems very involved right now, but once your child is here you'll be very adept at explaining things in terms he/she can understand. It's difficult to imagine because you don't know your hypothetical child's maturity or temperament.

    I think what you have written is fine, though, really. You could compare it to a lot of other surgeries, really - simple ones that wouldn't scare a child. I think that your emphasis on a healthy life will provide a context that's right for this conversation - one where your body image will not be the first thought to occur to them.

    It's a scary thought, though, right? I have a daughter who is 1, and I've been working out and eating better simply because that's what I want her to see: not the struggle, but the health of it.

  5. My mother has brought up my weight in EVERY SINGLE CONVERSATION for the last 11 years.

    Let me tell you - IT SUCKS and it makes me very, very emotional every time she brings it up. One time I even stomped my feet, burst into tears, choked out "why do you ALWAYS DO THIS?!" and ran out of the house. And I was 21. I realize its not a rational response, but its hard to be when its your mom and she's being negative about the way you look.

    And maybe it's just me, but I feel like my mom sees me as less of a person because of my weight. Of course she links it to "I just want you to be healthy" - which might be true, but it sure doesn't feel like that most of the time.

    I think that if you model a healthy lifestyle from day one - diet AND excerise - then your kids won't know any different. And if they're a bit overweight, let them be. It's not up to you to try to "fix" your kids weight (to a certain extent), its up for you to make sure they have a solid base in nutrition and an active lifestyle. One thing that blows my mind is that as a Mom, YOU control everything that goes on in your household (when they're little). YOU control whether or not they can have chips, or watch an extra half hour of TV, or learn that 4 x 3 really is 12.

    Both my boyfriend & I are overweight, and I know our children might be pre-disposed to being heavy as well. I plan on having a healthy and active household - leading my kids by example. Like maggie said, I want my kids to say "I can do that too!" rather than "Oh crap no, NOT STAIRS!!!"

    As for telling them about your surgery, couldn't that wait until they're adults (or at least later teens)? I can't imagine a 6 year old understanding it, but an 18 year old might.

  6. I really can't imagine your surgery being a big issue for hypothetical children. If they see old pictures of you and ask about the weight you've lost, you can just tell them then. I don't think it's really an issue you would need to sit down and have a serious talk about.

  7. This is very interesting and thought-provoking. I like Alice's comment. I tend toward the heavy side, but am pretty active, so while I am on the heavier side of overweight, I'm not obese and I have a lot of muscle (people are generally surprised by how much I weigh).

    My oldest daughter's father also tended toward the heavy side, and so does she. I had never really discussed body type or weight with her until she was about 12 or so. The reason I did then was because it had become unhealthy for her. She has an aversion to sports and exercise, and had not found a physical activity that she enjoyed, despite all our efforts to get her involved in something (soccer, tennis, taekwondo, etc.). This had resulted in her becoming borderline obese and having high cholesterol. We had to sit down and have a serious talk; her health was at stake. It was a struggle all through middle school, but then she hit high school, found marching band, and effortlessly dropped 35 pounds. She is normal weight and her cholesterol is fine now. We no longer discuss weight issues. She sees me running and working out regularly and she also sees me eat like a normal person (with an insane sweet tooth).

    My three younger kids (with my second husband) are skinny-minnies. Weight is not an issue for them at all, unless it's being underweight and us telling them they need to eat more protein and fat. Even then we don't tie it to weight; we tell them they need more food to grow and to develop the muscle they need for the sports they like.

    None of this was advice, though. I think if I were you, I'd make sure to have some pictures of me at my heavier weight around the house. That might cause your kids to ask you about it and then you can answer based on their questions (can you tell my parenting style is sort of a play it by ear as you go kind of thing?). If they never ask you about it, then they probably don't see it as anything worth asking about and you've accomplished making it a non-issue. If they do tend toward the heavy side, they probably WILL ask and then you can answer them based on the weight issues about which they themselves seem to be concerned.

    Anyway, I think I'll be thinking about this for a while...

  8. I think that, like most things, you won't really know how to deal with a situation until you're in that situation. Hence, you can think about this and think about this, but I wouldn't particularly worry about how you're going to handle it until the kids in question are actually in your life. And by then, you'll have a better idea how you feel about the surgery and how it's affected you, which will probably help you figure out how to talk about it with your kids. There are plenty of other things to worry about at the moment; I'd put this one on hold for a bit. ;-)

  9. I'm hoping to break the (at least) three generation cycle of disordered eating in my family with our kids (boys or girls). My grandmother, mother, sister and I all have struggled not only with weight but with all kinds of body/eating issues over the last 75 years. Comments my grandmother made to my mother prompted my mother to starve herself for months when she was a teenager. Comments my mother made to me and my sister prompted the same behavior in us - which she saw but did nothing to stop. We get compliments when we are thinner and thinly-veiled disgust when we are not. My mom has couched it as a health issue, but for her it's really about body dysmorphia. I hope to work through my issues well enough that I don't pass the same problems onto my own kids. My husband and I are not prone to thinness but we're also both very active and into healthy eating, and we hope to instil the same values in our kids, regardless of their size or shape.

    I think discussing your surgery with them starting when they are very young and giving them the opportunity to see photos of you at a bigger size will normalize it for them so by the time they're old enough to ask questions they'll already know the hows and the whys.

  10. This is a hard one and I know this sounds weird, but I almost think you're going to have to meet your kids and know what their personalities are like, how sensitive they are, that kind of thing before you figure out how to approach it. I mean I know on a basic level you will shape their personalities, and I'm sure you're going to be a wonderful, nurturing, caring mother and I know they will feel supported and loved and live healthy lives based on everything you've written. But really, until you know them, it might be hard. I think being open and honest and facilitating conversation whenever it comes up is a good start - I know I wish my parents would have done that with me instead of just dancing around the weight issue.

  11. As you know, I'm not a parent. And I didn't have to deal with obesity issues as a kid. So, I'm not particularly qualified to have a lengthy conversation about this subject. But, I do believe that children are able to digest and understand a lot more than adults give them credit for. And to ignore the issue would be foolish. I think you will find the right time and the right way to share your story with your children and make them better people because of it.

  12. I'm a single mom of 11 year old twin girls and I have found that the things I thought would be a "big deal" to my kids aren't, and vice versa. You have a healthy approach to the whole thing so I wouldn't worry about this until there are actually children to discuss it with. I bet they end up surprising you.

    Also, I have found that schools are doing their best to teach health and nutrition with NO mention of weight (at least in our school district). It makes the discussion about it at home really easy and not personally sensitive. So when I recently embarked on a path to lose weight (22 lbs and counting!) and get healthier, my kids saw it as just that - doing something that was good for me and not falling prey to any "must be skinny" mentalities.

    Basically, I guess this was my long way of saying don't borrow trouble. Worry about explaining it when there is someone to explain it to, and you might find it's not as big as issue and you think.

  13. I wish my mom saw it this way. Convincing me to like my body, if she did I may never would have real bad body images.

  14. I get what you're saying about wanting to emphasize health, but that's also a tricky thing...being overweight does increase your risk of certain serious health problems. Clearly, some people are born to be skinny and some are not, so calling it an outgrowth of laziness or lack of intelligence or motivation is ridiculous. But there's also an overwhelming increase in weight related chronic diseases such as Type II diabetes that are directly linked to the growing obesity problem in the US. This (and other) problems also happen to affect people at "ideal" weights as well, albeit at a lower frequency. All of this to say, it's just such a sticky, tricky, issue, this weight/size/health discussion. I commend you for being so proactive, for so many years now. You have clearly taken steps throughout time to provide yourself (and future children) with the best health possible. I think as long as you're coming at this topic from an honest, well informed position, you can't go wrong. You seem to be a good person, with a good heart, and I think you will handle this with grace and dignity, as you do your life in general. I hope you continue to do well post-surgery.

  15. I would tell them about the surgery EVENTUALLY, but when they're young (like preteen) and happen to ask questions or notice, "Hey, you look a lot heavier in this picture" then I'd just say, "Yeah, I lost some weight that next year," or whatever. I don't think they're going to question beyond that, and I do think it would maybe be a confusing or even scary thing to explain to a young child. I'd definitely tell them someday, so it's not like this big secret, but I don't think it's a topic that needs to be discussed as soon as they start asking about weight.

  16. I've wondered how to tell my kids that I was married before my marriage to their dad. Like you, I don't want it to be a Big Reveal later---I'd like it to be something they've always known, and something that's no big deal. Yet I don't want to seem to be ENDORSING divorce or saying it doesn't matter. So, ack.

    What I've done so far is mention it casually whenever it seems appropriate, which isn't often but does happen. For example, one kid will tell me about a child in his class who has TWO HOUSES, and some further discussion will reveal that one house is the child's dad's house and the other house is the child's mom's house. So I naturally turn this into a discussion of divorce, and in that discussion I casually mention that I myself am divorced.

    I'll bet it'll be the same for you. It won't come up so much that it'll be a big deal, but when it does you can casually mention it. You can also tie it into the thyroid issues, since that diagnosis was not too long before the surgery.

  17. I think it is wonderful you are so thoughtful. I think if you stress to your children the importance of being healthy and active they will understand and follow a happy active lifestyle. I think you can explain the surgery was a step to help you towards your goal of being healthy and then having children and healthy pregnancies.
    I grew up in a house full of love, but my mom and
    brother had issues with weight/food. I can tell you
    seeing other people treat them differently than I changed
    how I treated others. (I am mindful more of treat others as you would want to be treated.) I think people can be cruel
    to others about weight and superficial stuff.

    I was always saved by exercise, and being very active during high school and college. My brother suffered a lot during his teenage years.

  18. Oh, I am so sorry to have missed this yesterday! Great post and comments, as always, on one of my favorite topics.

    The Policy is pretty extreme, on the spectrum. Totally agree. In theory, focusing on health is ideal and appropriate. However, for the majority of people, especially WOMEN, "health" is just code for "weight". And I think that kids see right through that.

    I also think it's a slippery slope from categorizing things as "healthy/not healthy" to applying moral judgements (I was "good" or I was "bad") to food and exercise choices. Blech. Yucky.

    ANYHOO. Great discussion. Great Jess. xoxo

  19. I think it's wise to be open and wise with your kids on an age-appropriate level.

    ALSO - I don't think it's a guarantee that your kids will have weight issues. Think of the different lifestyle you're living now, and the area you're living in (lots of outdoor activity potential). Your future children might begin life with the good habits you have now and not battle the same issues.

  20. I'm gone for close to a month and you've already had your surgery and everything. I'm so happy to read that so far things are going really well with it and you're feeling so good!

    My Mom talked way too much about weight when I was growing up and my always being the biggest girl in any group, that sure didn't help. I have plans to try so much harder with our kids, especially since we'll have two girls, BUT it's much easier said than done when you're nine months pregnant and feeling no smaller than Paul Bunyan's blue ox. :)